Monday, November 28, 2016

A non-conformist, original 'Krishna with the flute' who made the singer larger than the song


What made Balamuralikrishna different - so different that his demise, which cannot be considered untimely at the age of 85, has created a rare sense of loss not just among classical music afficianados but a wider public in northern as well as southern India? Part of the reason must be his entanglement with the orthodoxies of the Carnatic Establishment where the slightest departure from the beaten track is frowned upon. A generation earlier the great G.N.Balasubramanian had to face displeasure from the sanctorum because he had got himself a B.A.Hons degree, something true maestros considered unnecessary if not undesirable. But GNB's sustained virtuosity didn't take long to bring the barriers down.

Balamurali turned musician around age 10, so he had no time to go to college (which made his facility with spoken English all the more impressive). But he happily flaunted "Dr" before his name. He too earned disapproval from the Establishment because he dared to compose his own songs and work out his own ragas using only three notes instead of the five considered the absolute minimum. He evolved into a daring experimenter, innovator, iconoclast, rebel. To make things worse, he was a Telugu trained under Telugu gurus. The Establishment, although unstinting in its veneration of Tyagaraja, had in effect developed a Mylapore gravitas so much so that it had initially looked suspiciously even at Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar because he was a hybrid from Palghat.

It stands to the credit of the Establishment, however, that it always bowed to the call of greatness. Traditionalist biases were set aside fairly quickly when women singers of superior talent came up, when university-educated singers proved their worth and when Balamuralikrishna, defiant as he was, proved worthy of his name - Krishna with a flute. To him Carnatic music appeared to be a springboard to help him soar into his own realm of exploration. This antagonised some purists, but it also attracted listeners not brought up in the Carnatic milieu. Critics found his style of rendering classical ragas unclassically mundane; they accused him of indulging in vocal fireworks rather than pursuing musical fidelity. Actually the so-called fireworks were part of the Balamurali essence, integral to the originality that branded his music.

Lifting that music to magical heights was his voice, the unmistakable deep-pitched voice that had attracted public attention when he was not even 10 years old. The vocal boom stayed with him all through life, despite his refusal to do anything special to protect it. (Singers are known to go to great lengths to see that their throats are not exposed to potential harm. A Carnatic mridangam artist went to the extent of not wringing his bath towels so that his precious fingers would be spared unnecessary strain. Balamurali broke all the rules. Icecream was among his favourite sweets). A reverberating wonder of manliness, the Balamurali voice would climb peaks and, the next moment, plunge into the meandering softness of controlled emotion.

No classical musician gave the impression as convincingly and as consistently as Murali Garu did of enjoying what he was doing on the concert stage. He conveyed a buoyancy, a gladness of spirit that proclaimed his joy as he sang. The pleasure quotient was high in his performance and the extent to which he could convey it to his audience was something of a wonder. He had also acquired amazing levels of breath control. He would stretch one single swara interminably (in the composition Sundari nee divya, for example) as if musical artistry was above physical boundaries. For those who want to see two musicians enjoying themselves, there is nothing to equal the jugalbandhis between Balamurali and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. The best of these performances are not just for listening; they must be seen as well as heard if only to witness the abandon with which Bhimsen Joshi swings his hands and his head and his body in ecstasy as the two masters match each other. The pleasure they so obviously experience passes to their listeners -- and viewers -- overwhelmingly until eyes fill up with tears of joy.

In the end music, like all arts, is meant to give pleasure. Balamuralikrishna derived more pleasure from his muse than any artist of his generation. He loved the good things of life. More importantly, he loved them without inhibitions and without socially correct pretensions. He never suffered from false modesty or from superior airs. He was simple, honourable, open. He died in his sleep. A good ending for a good man.

Monday, November 21, 2016

How far can religion/caste calculations take us? It's sad that secularism is now a bad word


There is a relentlessness about the way caste and religion are taking over India. The traditional notion of lower and upper castes was shattered when Gujarat's well-to-do Patels unleashed an agitation for reservation. Then it turned out there were Patels and Patels -- Leuva Patels and Kalava Patels, happy OBCs, Kachia Patels and Anjana Patels, wannabe OBCs, and Muslim Patels (converted Patidars). Muslims in Gujarat have more "sub-castes" than their counterparts in the rest of India: Dawoodis, Ismailis, Khojas, Memons, Bohras, Lohanas.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's favourite political philosophy is anchored on the Ahinda theory -- a union of minorities, backward castes and Dalits who, according to a controversial caste census, outnumber the mighty Lingayats and Vokkaligas put together. There are of course Hosadevaru Vokkaligas, Gangadikara Vokkaligas, Morasu Vokkaligas, Namadhari Vokkaligas, Kunchitiga Vokkaligas and so on besides 42 types of Lingayats, irresistible votebank ground.

This kind of arithmetic assumed almost vulgar proportions in UP-Bihar. Dalit messiah Kanshi Ram left nothing to the imagination when he coined slogans like "Beat Brahmins, Banyas and Thakurs with shoes" and "vote hamara, raj thumara, nahi chalega". Mayawati who assumed power with the help of such slogans wrote new chapters in political cynicism. She tied up with the BJP at one point, destroying the Kanshi Ram legacy, then promoted new votebank concepts like Dalit-Muslim formula and later Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin formula.

All this in a country that was singed by a religion-based partition. Pakistan declared itself an Islamic state and became increasingly fundamentalist as the years passed. India's first generation leaders tried to avoid that path and built a constitutional base for a state where all religions would be equal. That seemed a practical approach in a country left with a large minority of Muslims and a highly splintered majority (Not only were communities like Sikhs and Dalit segments not Hindu; some Lingayat communities campaigned to be considered non-Hindu).

Secularism worked magic in Europe by ending the church's role in governance. The church was an armed entity that fought battles like the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). It was at the end of that war that the word "secularisation" was first used, meaning the transfer of church properties to governments. It thus came to denote something good and progressive in a country.

India's has been a different experience, so different that the notable historian T.N.Madan said pointblank: "In the prevailing circumstances, secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent". This was in mid 1980s, well before the Narendra Modi phenomenon and the rise of the BJP as a political powerhouse. So why was he so certain? Secularism was impossible as a credo, he said, "because the great majority of people in South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith". State action based on it was impractical because, among other things, it was difficult for the state to maintain religious neutrality "since religious minorities do not share the majority's view of what this entails for the state". And it was impotent for future planning because "by its very nature, it is incapable of countering religious fundamentalism and fanaticism".

When Madan made those prescient observations, he could not have imagined that religious fanaticism would become as strong as they are today. Babri Masjid was still standing and it wasn't clear that the Congress would decline to the point of leaving the BJP virtually opposition-less in the polling booths.

In a country where a great majority "are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith", the dangers inherent in religious fanaticism are obvious. Early warnings have already been sounded in India with lynchings and bombings and competitive murders by people who feel righteous about their actions. In vain did our early leaders counsel caution. Gandhi declared all religions as true because they gave meaning to the moral life. Nehru became the leading advocate of secularism in his age. Even Jinnah, never a practising Muslim, was secularist. Within days of Pakistan's birth, he told his people: "Bury the hatchet."

What we see today is not a pretty picture. Religion may not be influencing statecraft in Europe and countries like China. But it has become the deciding factor in political actions in India. In his learned analysis of the issue, T.N.Madan asked, "Is everything lost irretrievably?" and replied ominously: "I really have no solutions to suggest".

We need to ask again: Is everything lost irretrievably?

Monday, November 14, 2016

As jaw-droppers and nerve-wrackers hit the people, will Rupee finally win? Will Trump triumph?

So America got a jaw-dropping shock. India got two -- the jaw-dropping one plus the nerve-wracking rupee maha-shock. The impact of the former will take a few months to unravel. The impact of the latter was instant like an electric shock. Much of the panic it caused was unavoidable because demonetisation with a view to unearthing black money needs to be planned secretly and announced suddenly. In the event, the secrecy and the suddenness were both admirable. The boldest government initiative in recent decades, it directly targetted corruption and fake currency as well as the black economy. It is a master stroke that deserves to succeed.

In the nature of things, the announcement also disrupted life across the country. The sudden denial of everyday cash for everyday essentials dealt a raw deal to the poor, the old, the petty traders, the daily wage earners and the many who are too backward to know what bank accounts mean. It hit the urban middleclass, too, as was evident in banks, petrol bunks and railway ticket counters where chaos reigned. Closer attention by the planners could have saved ordinary people from much of the trouble.

Actually, ordinary people rose to the occasion in spite of the problems they faced. From across the country there were reports of citizens saying that they would put up with short-term inconveniences in the interests of the country. Television channels broadcast pictures of people lining up at petrol stations and in front of petty shops, saying how vexing was their experience and how they would bear with it since the abolition of black money was in their interest.

Will worthy intentions lead to worthy results? High-value rupee notes were demonetised in 1946 and again in 1978. On both occasions, the intention was to wipe out the black market. Obviously both attempts failed. In recent years the parallel economy had grown to 23.2 percent of the GDP according to World Bank estimates. That would translate to about US $ 479 billion. The Government itself will have to admit that black money could not have grown that big without the active support of politicians in power.

Besides, let us not underestimate the genius of Indians to circumvent laws. Politics, crony capitalism and entrepreneurship have grown in India on one simple principle: Where there is a law, there is a loophole. How Indian ingenuity flowers in the days ahead will be of interest to sociologists as well as to income tax collectors. Every citizen will wish the Government success because the Government's success against black money will be the people's success. Meanwhile, former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y.Quraishi drew attention to the obvious when he said the currency reform would have "a big impact on upcoming elections". In UP, for example, the Samajwadis and the Mayawatis will have no money to fight the elections. The BJP's victory is assured.

The rupee drama will be as transformative for India as Donald Trump's triumph has been for the United States. It wasn't a narrow victory for the man who ran a crude campaign. The support he received from voters must have astonished him too. The acceptance speech, however, was delivered by a new, born-again Trump -- gracious and conciliatory. But the hatreds and resentments had gone so deep that an unprecedented "He's not my President" movement has already started. A divisive America may be a fact of life for the immediate future.

In policy approaches, Trump is unlikely to be as abrasive as he sounded during the campaigning. While his campaign rhetoric will no doubt be softened by the realities of power and the constrictions imposed by America's political-administrative establishment, the basic tenets of the Trump philosophy are unlikely to change. His primary article of faith will be "America first". He will hold on to his view that allies must pay more for the US troops stationed in their region. He is also unlikely to give up on his stated opposition to the multi-nation pan-Pacific trade pact that was the thrust of Barack Obama's pivot to Asia policy. The military alliance with South Korea may survive.

Meanwhile, it is of interest to note that the six Indian-origin Americans who have got elected to the US Congress are all members of the Democratic Party despite the fund-raising celebrations conducted by the Republican Hindu Coalition. But the Coalition is far from discouraged. The Hindu Sena in Delhi distributed sweets when Trump won. A sizeable number of Indians seem convinced that Donald Trump is a BJP member.

Monday, November 7, 2016

If Trump wins, it means trouble. If Hillary wins, it means another kind of trouble. Some choice!


The world will go through a gear-shift this week. America is not just another country. As the world's biggest economy and military power, it cannot catch a cold without making others sneeze. Besides, it follows a presidential system that concentrates colossal power in one individual, power that is not always used wisely. A perverse war started by a lying President in 2003 unleashed murderous forces such as the ISIS that threaten the whole world today. Any US presidential election is therefore a matter of concern to all humanity.

More so this time. The election campaign this time has been the foulest, the dirtiest and the most hate-driven in living memory. The damage done is such that the choice before the electorate is not really a choice. It is like selecting between a bull in a chinashop and a freeloader in a supermarket. When a country is forced to decide between two evils, the country loses. When the country is America, the world loses.

Ominous things have already happened, casting shadows across America. The most significant of these is the polarisation of people into those who tolerate others and those who don't (a polarisation the ramifications of which are already visible to us in India). The tolerant want what they consider American values to continue undisturbed. The intolerant see in Trump a change maker who will bring America back to what it was, and what it ought to be -- the homeland of White Protestants.

The intensity of anti-Trump passions was clear in the words of veteran thespian Robert De Niro. He appeared on TV, facial muscles taut, described Trump as "a national disaster", called him "a punk, dog, pig and mutt" and said, "I am so angry that this fool has got to this point". The anger had little effect. Last-minute opinion polls showed Trump having an edge over his opponent.

If the opponent had been less controversial, perhaps the situation might have been less scary. What a seachange for the Democrats from ten years ago when Barak Obama electrified the scene with his inspirational aura. The Democratic Party did not cover itself with glory by picking a flag-bearer whose capabilities are as disputed as her integrity. A great many people are likely to vote for Trump just to show their dislike of Hillary. The number may not be less than those who vote for Hillary just to record their contempt for Trump.

One of the frustrations of this election is that whoever wins, there will be trouble. Half the divided population will not mentally accept the authority of the winner. It could be worse if Trump were to be the loser. Remember that he was blunt when asked whether he would accept a verdict against him. What did he mean when he said he would decide that after the results were known? That position bristled with both defiance of the American Constitution and a threat of action outside the scope of law.

If Trump were to be the winner, a whole range of other problems could descend upon America and the world. He could turn America's alliances with other countries upside down, launch protectionist policies, promote racism and be unabashedly autocratic. Power understands power and he may build friendships with Russia and China, but beyond that he could be dangerous.

That may precisely be what a large chunk of Americans are looking for. The yearning for a change from status-quoism where the wrong types get privileges has seen rightwing forces rising in many societies. In America, too, ultra-nationalism has become a dominant sentiment. Resenting the incessant flow of immigrants, the White Protestant masses would like to erase the inscription on the Statue of Liberty which says, "Give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse... send these, the homeless, to me". Not when Ronald Trump is holding the lamp. That is why there is so much mass support for Trump. There should be no surprise if, God forbid, he wins.

The comic relief in this otherwise grim drama was provided by a band of trumpeteers who called themselves the Republican Hindu Coalition in the US. Traditionally most Indians in the US support the Democrats. The Hindu Coalition marked a departure with a boisterous reception for Trump. Their hero rose to the occasion and declared: "I am a big fan of Hindu," immortal words that went viral. We can now rest assured that a Trump White House, whatever havoc it causes elsewhere, will be good for Hindu.


Monday, October 31, 2016

When violence, hatred and conflicts surround us, quotable quotes give us comfort and hope



These are troubled times. Conflicts beset our lives and everyone is at war with everyone. One way -- perhaps the only way -- to snatch a modicum of sanity amid the malevolence is to seek out the soothing words of the wise who went before us, the
great men who made our lives sublime/and left footprints on the sands of time.

The need to do so is increasing by the day. Wherever we turn, we see people hating people, violence derailing life, religion fighting religion. An hour with the newspapers in the morning leaves us depressed. A half-hour with the news channels in the evening leaves us distressed; can "debates" among seemingly educated citizens be so disruptive, anchoring so maniacal? If we turn to the internet for relief, we see a scary world of unsupervised abuse from free-floating antibodies. Where has the world of decencies gone?

The words of wisdom passed on by past generations do not always cheer us up. Some merely help us cope by explaining the mess we are in. Thus the texts on Kaliyuga tell us that we are living in times when "barbarians will rise as kings, humans with animal nature will multiply, Brahmins will sell the vedas, sages will become traders and rains will not come in season." What a perfect description of our lives?

The need for words of comfort explains the popularity of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's books and the perennial appeal of the Tamil classic Thirukkural with its moral aphorisms: "The compassionate who care for other lives do not fear for their own lives".

Collections of quotations remain evergreen because of their wit and wisdom.Winston Churchill, himself a master of quotable quotes ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few", or, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put") did not hesitate to recommend the reading of quotations. When engraved upon the memory, he said, "they give you good thoughts".

Dictionaries of quotations are a staple of the English language. But they are Western in their orientation. Thus the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 38 pages of quotations from the Bible and not even a stray one from the Gita or the Upanishads. To the dictionary reader, therefore, the unrivalled gems of the Bhagwat Gita are unavailable. And only Upanishad scholars will come upon beautiful thoughts such as, "This earth is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this earth" (Brihadaranyaka).

Thankfully, those seeking refuge from surrounding hostilities have enough in the English world to comfort them. Dostoyevsky does it with lofty insights: "Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others". Charles Dickens delights us with his rustic wisdom: "Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time". Or, "we forge the chains we wear in life".

Sheer nastiness can also give pleasure by being bright with wit. See what Cyril Connolly said of George Orwell: "He cannot blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry". Orwell himself said: "The worst advertisement for the Christian religion is its adherents". H.L.Mencken was a master of this art. "Love", he said, "is the delusion that one woman differs from another". Among his endless wisecracks was: "A good politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar".

One of the most popular quotation providers was Oscar Wilde. Poet, playwright, novelist and bohemian, his imagination was unrivalled when it came to expressing outrageous ideas in enchanting phrases. "Work is the curse of the drinking classes", he said. And, "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly". He cautioned us: "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies". And also: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his". He defined a cynic as "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". And he reminded us: "There is no sin except stupidity". And that "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it".

In the end, it is the noble-minded who win the day. In these troubled times, the simple words with which a simple man outlined a simple philosophy come through as the best quote. Said tennis star Roger Federer's father Robert: "Cry when you win, cry when you lose -- that's sport. Just don't cheat".